The Elders at Willow Creek Church have released their first (and now final) statement via emaill regarding the predatory and serial abuse of Bill Hybel’s going back over 30 years. (I posted it here at the bottom, as far as I know they have not made this statement available online which is strange.) It falls enormously short of what the victims, Willow Creek and what the entire Christian Church needs. It is in my opinion, a complete failure of leadership responsibility and biblical accountability… so much so it may doom Willow Creek church.
The Statement Fails to address the Elephants in the Room
Let’s here recall that Bill’s victims were horribly retraumatized as they were publicly called liars, and falsely accused consensual sex with Bill. I will do so here because the report fails to mention this clearly. Since these accusations were made on the stage before 30k people and sent by email to even more, this may be the most horrific examples of spiritual abuse in Christian history. Parallel to this, Willow Creek Church has for its entire history placed Bill Hybels in a position of worship and idolatry. Its not unfair or an exaggeration that Willow Creek still remains a literal cult built around its founder. You cannot properly address the big issues in the room, by failing to mention those same issues.
It gets worse. Their statement hints at an apology, sounds like an apology, they repeatedly edge toward one, but not one time do they actually apologize for Bill’s or the boards sins. This is more shocking that the board now has the benefit of not one, but TWO painful investigations. And yet, no public apology.
Although they do call Bill to repent, they are not actually clear on what Bill they are asking Bill to repent for. The only specific sin they name in this report is “intimidating behavior”. They fail to name in any way the Bill’s actions were even sexual, or the more accurate sexual assault. This way falls short of the Elder’s command in 1 Tim 5:20, “But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.” To reprove someone publicly, we must publicly state what they are reproving them FOR. Calling someone to just repent is not enough to meet the biblical requirements set forth for Elders in 1 Tim 5:20.
It Contains False and Misleading Information
This elder statement also contains some false information which is extremely troubling, they state untruthfully that “despite the apology released by the lead pastors in June 2018 and the former Elders in August 2018.” And “The former Elders, along with the former lead pastors, apologized, expressed remorse, and resigned in 2018. Neither of these statements are true. There were 2 lead “pastors” in June of 2018, Heather Larson and Steve Carter, and its true that Steve Carter apologized publicly, but Heather Larson has never apologized in any way or any form. In August of 2018 the board was deeply divided after Pat Baranowski’s story was revealed in the New York Times, and Missy did go to the main stage apologize for not believing the victims, but since there was no signed or public statement, and not one Elder stood next to her, we don’t know which board members actually supported Missy’s statement and which didn’t. As it remains today, Missy Rasmussen and Steve Carter are the only 2 leaders to actually apologize. No document or video exists with any Elder “signature” (either the new or old boards) that contains any public apology, even 5 years into this horrible mess, and even now. There is no way to bionically outsource acts of apology and repentance is. Most board members, new and old and going back years, MUST publicly and biblical individually apologize for their many and enormous sins in enabling sexual abuse to reign unchecked.
(note: Heather Larson did offer an a vague and confusing video apology for not stating earlier that she did believe some of the victims (while publicly calling them all liars) and by default stating she did believe some were lying. But its so fraught with superfluous information and fluff, no one is clear what she is truly apologizing for.)
The “New” Elders Still Blame the Victims
Notice carefully that they add made public in their statement “aftermath of the events made public in March 2018, we experienced a fracture in our church marked by disbelief, confusion, fear, and hurt.” The real perpetrator wasn’t Bill, or spiritual abuse or neglect by the board, the new Elders are once again blaming the victims. By identifying as the only clear fact that these events were “made public” the Elders continue to demonstrate they blame the victims, not the perpetrators for the ensuing “fracture” in the church.
The “New” Elders Continue to Minimize Bill’s Sins
Let’s also look how they infinitely euphemize and minimize Bill’s behavior. Reading the eternal vagueness of this report I am not sure if Bill’s “intimating behavior” was just stealing someone’s parking spot, here is what they wrote: “in the events that came to light in 2018” “of the events made public” “who raised concerns”. The don’t actually describe what happened. Let be truly honest and call it was it was, it was SEXUAL ABUSE, it WAS SPIRITUAL ABUSE, and IT WENT ON UNCHECKED FOR OVER 3O YEARS, by a man who was married, so it’s also ADULTERY, and who claimed to be a PASTOR. The Board’s continual efforts to minimize repeated and horrible behavior at this level are intentionally and knowingly deceptive.
The “New” Elders Fail to Biblically Lead
The Elders statement clearly identified that advocates for the victims were literally threatened by staff and pastors at Willow Creek. Yet they offer no promise to investigate or properly reprimand these employees. This is utterly a lack of biblical leadership, the MUST lead these people either to repentance or the door.
The New Elders in Making this their Final Statement, Attempt to Silence the Victims… again
The Willow Creek elders in crafting what they have declared to be their “final” statement, did not consult any of Bill’s victims. And by doing so, once again attempt to silence them. In Truth this is not over until the victims says it is. The Victims not the Elders get the final say, and are on the one’s who can saw “we are done”.
The “New” Elders Excuse the Horrible Spiritual Abuse of the previous board
The closest their statement gets to any actual apology and sympathy is sadly to the former board, NOT the victims of Bill’s sexual abuse. The statement also utterly fails in how they completely exonerate the former board for their Spiritual Abuse of Bill’s victims. It’s important to understand the sexual abuse by Bill Hybels was first made aware to a board member in the last 1980s, and they did nothing. Again, the issue arose before the entire board in 2014, heroically championed by board members Betty Schmidt and Vonda Dyer, who plead for a full investigation. (its unknown if during the 1990’s to 2014 years if any incidents of sexual abuse reached the board, and if anyone has knowledge of this please let me know). And board responded… by publicly and knowingly twisting Betty’s words and creating a false narrative in order to clear Bill. You can read Betty’s gut wrenching and convicting account here.
Later the board publicly indicated Bill’s victims were not really abused, but the sexual contact was consensual. This utter and horribly retraumatized them, and today still remains uncorrected (and thereby, the public declaration of the board). But they did this without ANY facts or evidence, thereby revealing their malice.
The new Elders exonerate the old board simply because they “believed Bill”. They falsely, deceptively and intentionally mis-stated fellow board member Betty Schmidt. This is not accurate because we have clear and public evidence their LIES went way beyond what Bill told them. They were willing to knowingly lie to protect the image of the institution, at the cost of the victims. Since this happened over 4 years and was consistent, and remains uncorrected, this is clear and intentional malice that cannot be washed away or ignored. The former board is as guilty of sin as Bill, and need to be publicly biblically rebuked, not unjustly excused.
The Final Blow: The Elder’s Heresy of False Reconciliation and Cheap Grace
Most of the Elder statement is a call to “reconciliation” and all the scripture they refence is toward this goal. For those of us in the cheap seats this not the first attempt, nor even the second, but a continuation of the same “reconciliation” push going back years. Willow Creek was so dysfunctional, that Bill for YEARS didn’t actually talk to or meet with his own Elder board. Let this sink in for a moment: WC hosted the Global Leadership Summit while having the most dysfunctional leadership system possibly all of human history.
We cannot blindly wave the flag of reconciliation until we have walked the hard walk of truth.
Let us recall the biblical act of salvation is not the sinners prayer, its public proclamation that “Jesus is Lord”: “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9). This is simply a public declaration of truth. A false reconciliation without the walk of truth is exactly the “cheap grace” heresy that Bonhoeffer warns the church of so clearly (read The Cost of Discipleship, chapter 2).
Here they excuse and forgive the board: “We extend God’s grace just as we have freely received grace. We invite our fellow believers to join us in extending God’s grace.” This is not true grace they call for, it in face of an unrepentant board, heretical cheap Grace. We do them nor the church any favor by exonerating them in the face of such public evidence.
Read more here, Betty Schmidt’s biblical conditions for repentance and reconciliation a 16 months ago STILL have not been met today. Betty was right then, and she still is now. Before reconciliation can happen, and grace can be experienced, the board must make the hard walk of truth, and its something by declaring this their “final” statement, they are refusing to do.
Fundamentally, the Elders by trying reconcile with Bill and the victims, without any apology or truth, is a very strong reinforcement of the false narrative that Bill’s actions were consensual, and not sexual harassment or assault. The only action really left to Bill’s victims to set the public record straight now sadly may be a lawsuit.
The Cult of Bill Hybels
The longest issue undermining Willow Creek church and its chances of survival, is personality cult of Bill Hybel’s thriving even today. I don’t use that word loosely, and will call it what it is: Willow Creek remains… a cult. And if they want to survive, they need to do more than “move on”, they need to repent.
For evidence, you can see how they tirelessly euphemize Bill’s behavior, instead of calling it honestly as “sexual abuse”, the call it vaguely the “events made public in March 2018” and “concerns”. WC staff cultishly attacked and threatened the victim’s advocate’s (unnamed in the statement, but it was John and Nancy Ortburg, and Jimmy Mellado) without any individual reprimand by WC leaders or the board. Instead of actually rebuking and confronting these employees (or firing them), they call only for a vague “reconciliation”. This not biblical leadership or management oversite. We have a board that for years made up the facts as they saw fit to exonerate Bill. Bill’s behavior went on for over 30 years, its impossible to continue such long-term sexual abuse without the help or knowledge of others, others that remained silent and by doing so are accomplices to Bill’s and other sexual and spiritual abuse. Anytime there is a unwillingness to hold others accountable, there is a cult at work.
What Willow Creek Must do to Survive
For Willow Creek to avoid painful and slow dissolution, it must respond and respond quickly. The incidents of sexual and spiritual abuse at Willow Creek are only beginning to be told. The issues still far more serious than they have grasped.
- The Elders, former and now present, must all individually and publicly apologize. At this time, only Missy Rasmussen and Steve Carter have put their names or faces to any public statements. For the very least, for creating a culture in which Bill Hybel’s abuse could thrive decades unchecked.
- The accurate truth of Bill’s behavior must to told. Let’s stop with these horribly and deceptively vague “concerns” and call it was it truly is: unrelenting and predatory spiritual and sexual abuse that occurred over 30 years. Anything else is frankly dishonest.
- Bill must be publicly reproved for specific sin, and declared biblically unfit to be a minister of Christ. 1 Tim 5:20. Bill Hybel’s is a serial sexual predator, we still don’t know the breadth of is damage.
- The victims must be publicly exonerated for going public. The began a Matt 18 process in 2014 that went on for 4 years, with no hope of resolution. This failure was the fault of Willow Creek alone. ALL the victims were within their biblical rights to make these matters public.
- The current elders must write up an honest and accurate apology WITH the direct input of Bill’s victims. (It still REALLY gauls me the recent statements don’t actually include any apology). They must encourage former elders to either sign, or write up their own. Any Elder that refused to do either must be publicly excommunicated from the Church.
- They must investigate and confront the staff and pastors who threatened John and Nancy Ortburg, and Jimmy Mellado. If they don’t repent, they must be terminated and publicly rebuked. Willow Creek has publicly rebuked others on the main stage for far less than this.
- All the lies the Elders spoke must be specifically and publicly refuted to the same venues that they were made.
- There are many stories I know that are not yet public. They MUST shatter the cult of Bill Hybel’s with a thorough investigation of ALL the spiritual and sexual abuse that occurred over the last 30 years. This report MUST be done by an outside investigator, chosen by the victims, and it must be made public in its entirety (victims names, but not perpetrators, can be redacted).
- They MUST offer counselling to all of Willow Creek’s and Bill Hybel’s victims of sexual and spiritual abuse.
God removed the lampstand of Mars Hill in Seattle, and its unlikely Harvest (also in Chicago) will survive. Unless the board rapidly works deliberately and actively to shatter the cult of Bill Hybel’s, its extremely unlikely Willow Creek will survive.
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32
July 19, 2019
Dear Willow Family:
As we consider the future of our church, we are humbled and encouraged by the truth that the gospel is unchanging. In our time of devotion, we have been challenged to consider the good news as explained by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17–21:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
The good news God commissioned the church to share is the gospel of reconciliation through Jesus Christ, first to God and then to one another. In this season, we believe God has given Willow Creek Community Church the opportunity to live out the ministry of reconciliation. And so, as a church, we take a step into the future as Christ’s ambassadors, with the appeal to reconcile to God and to one another.
In the aftermath of the events made public in March 2018, we experienced a fracture in our church marked by disbelief, confusion, fear, and hurt. After such a traumatic experience, what does it look like to enter into a gospel-centered season of reconciliation? Because reconciliation is from God, we prayerfully entered into His work with humility and grace, undertaking a systematic approach to actively listen, learn, and apologize. Over the past six months, we, as an Elder Board, have reached out to and listened to people involved in the events that came to light in 2018.
We have intentionally talked with former Elders, former staff, and the individuals who raised concernsregarding our senior pastor starting in 2014 and went public in 2018. We have also sought to listen to church attenders and current staff who have come forward. We have reached out to Bill Hybels; however, he has chosen not to engage in dialogue at this time. We welcome the opportunity to meet with him to aid in healing and reconciliation. We are issuing this statement because in listening, we recognize that there are some specific harms that must be named.
To the women and their advocates: In the days and months following the March 2018 Chicago Tribune article, the church’s response led to verbal and written attacks. We have heard about the impact this has had on you, your families, and your professional standing within the Christian community. We learned that the narrative persists in identifying you as liars and colluders despite the apology released by the lead pastors in June 2018 and the former Elders in August 2018 (note, this not true). In early 2019, the IAG report found your allegations to be credible, and we unequivocally support their findings. We believe your allegations about Bill. We ask anyone who participated in verbal and written attacks to prayerfully examine their actions, apologize for wrongdoing, and seek to mend the relationship.
To Compassion International and Menlo Church: Your leaders spoke up for the women who were harmed. We have learned of mail and email messages threatening these advocates and their ministries. We again ask anyone who participated in sending threatening messages to prayerfully examine their actions, and seek to reconcile with those who have been harmed.
To the Elder Board of 2018: We acknowledge that there was an unfair assumption that you acted with malice. We have seen the public anger and judgment directed toward you. We acknowledge the harmful impact on you and your families. We believe that Bill’s denials and failure to acknowledge sinful, intimidating, and overly controlling behavior led leaders to make statements that were misinformed and incomplete. The former Elders, along with the former lead pastors, apologized, expressed remorse, and resigned in 2018 (NOT TRUE). We extend God’s grace just as we have freely received grace. We invite our fellow believers to join us in extending God’s grace.
To the staff of Willow Creek Community Church, both past and present, and to those who have called Willow their church home: We acknowledge your service and sacrifice for the kingdom of God. We recognize that you too have suffered harm in broken relationships, trust, and sense of community. We believe that the God who heals will help restore us all. We affirm the words in Hebrews 6:10: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”
God has blessed Willow Creek Community Church to have a profound impact for His kingdom. Bill Hybels served and contributed to Willow for more than 40 years. Simultaneously, unchecked sin and intimidating behavior resulted in harm that is still felt in this present day. Christ died to free us from the power of sin. It is in that spirit that we appeal to Bill to reflect on his years in ministry, repent where necessary, and seek to live out the ministry of reconciliation.
Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:14 that it is the love of Christ within that compels us toward reconciliation. Our path forward must include the ministry of reconciliation. Therefore, we encourage all Christ followers from Willow Creek, past and present, to consider the words from Ephesians 4:4–6, “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” May we grow in compassion, grace, forgiveness, and unity on the path of reconciliation that we now walk.
This is our last public statement intended to directly address the events of 2018. However, we will continue to work privately with individuals seeking renewed relationships and reconciliation.
As we look ahead to the future, we trust God will guide our steps. We invite all past and present Willow family to join the Elders for a worship and reflection service. This service will be Elder-led, and we will share more on reconciliation, our vision for the future, and the gospel-centered hope that anchors our church. Join us on Tuesday, July 23 at 7 p.m. in the Lakeside auditorium of the South Barrington campus.
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.” —Ephesians 3:20–21
In His service,
The Willow Creek Elder Board
Jeff Mason, Chief Governance Officer
John Sleeting, Secretary